Families and friends gathered today to commemorate victims of the Once Train Tragedy, in which 52 people were killed and 789 others were injured when a train failed to stop at Once Station in the City of Buenos Aires due to faulty brakes. The ensuing investigation and court proceeding into the incident finally came to a close this December and saw a total of 21 officials sentenced to terms in prison, on charges ranging from negligence to fraud.
At 8:32 AM a siren was sounded on Platform One at Once Station to signal the exact moment that the tragedy took place, four years ago to the day. Paolo Menghini, the father of victim Lucas Menghini, declared that justice had finally been done and that families could come together, having “fulfilled what we had promised to do by bringing justice for those killed and injured at Once.”
What Was The Once Tragedy?
On February 22nd 2012, a commuter train operated by State-run Buenos Aires Trains (TBA) packed with around 1,200 passengers failed to brake upon its arrival into Once Station, plowing into buffers at the end of the line. The first three cars were almost completely destroyed due to the impact.
While many people were killed instantly, it took hours to free others who remained trapped inside the cars. The responses of the emergency service and the train operators were heavily criticized, especially after it was revealed that the body of 19-year-old Lucas Menghini was not discovered until 58 hours after the crash took place. His family spent hours scouring hospitals and morgues, until his father, together with investigators, examined footage at San Antonio de Padua Station, which proved that Lucas had boarded the ill-fated train.
The Once Tragedy was the second TBA rail crash in less than six months. On September 13th 2011, a bus was hit by a train at a level crossing in the neighborhood of Flores. Eleven people were killed and 288 injured, although it was the driver of the bus who was later indicted, having ignored the level crossing’s warning lights.
A thorough investigation was begun to establish whether the train’s brakes had failed or the driver, Marcos Córdoba, was at fault. Although Córdoba was later sentenced, it later turned out that a whole of web of corruption and fraud had contributed to the tragedy.
The Court Battle Following The Disaster
Families had since endeavored to bring those responsible for the Once Tragedy to justice, while the train’s operators attempted to deflect blame. On December 29th 2015, 21 people, including the driver, Córdoba; one of the owner of TBA, Claudio Cirigliano; and two Transport Secretaries, Juan Pablo Schiavi and Ricardo Jaime, were sentenced to prison in a historic case that lasted had 22 months and included over 200 testimonies.
How did we get there?
Initially, Transport Secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi was quick to blame the driver, Córdoba, claiming that he had failed to activate the brakes upon arrival into the station. Schiavi concluded that “the only clear and plausible hypothesis” was that Córdoba had suffered an epileptic fit at the train’s controls. Córdoba always denied this, stating that he had repeatedly warned the dispatcher by radio that the train was suffering from braking problems and had been told to keep going. He said that after the brakes failed twice, he had activated the handbrake to try and stop the train. Córdoba’s testimony was later proven in court.
Schiavi had already enraged families of the victims when, just after the crash, he claimed that the death toll would have been “much less if it had occurred the day before,” because the train would have been less busy due to the fact that it was a national holiday.
The main cause of the crash was blamed on infrastructure deficiency, which in turn, was said to be due to corruption within the Transport Ministry. The TBA was set up in 2008 under the former Kirchner administration to manage some freight and passenger lines in the country. Despite receiving subsidies from the State, there was little investment in the trains and railway infrastructure, which, as a result were in poor condition. According to Clarín, millions of pesos were given to TBA to upgrade the state of the tracks and trains but there were never any signs of improvement. During the trial, it was also proven that government officials continued to give out the subsidies, even when they knew that the funds were not being used on improving the railways.
The court ultimately sentenced Schiavi to eight years, former Transport Secretary Ricardo Jaime to six years, Córdoba to three years and six months and TBA owner Claudio Cirigliano to nine years. A further 11 ex-TBA employees were also imprisoned for their involvement in the company’s fraudulent activities.
Following the court ruling, Lucas Menghini’s father said he believed that, “the corrupt structure [of government] had been responsible for the tragedy.”